Over the past 9 years, we have been subjected to increasingly intrusive inspections if we
wish to board an airplane. Most of these ‘security measures’ have been accepted by the traveling public as a reasonable compromise between safety and personal liberties. So far.
I think everyone would agree that no one should be allowed on a plane with a gun or large knife. Given the ubiquity of passthrough scanners and x-ray checked for bags, this became essentially a non issue since the spate of hijackings back in the 1970s. Than came September 2001, and the attacks in the US. After that, the US government made the decision that very possible risk be removed from passenger attacks while in flight. As new means of smuggling bombs aboard (shoes, underwear) were attempted, the security tightened, and continues to tighten.
Recently, full body scanners and more intrusive pat-down techniques have been implemented in both Canada and the US. For example, last July I was returning from a wedding in Ottawa and was pulled out of the line-up when I set off the alarm. I was wearing denim shorts, a light t-shirt and sandals. A careful examination by the wand showed that the rivets in my shorts had set off the alarm. Last year, that would have been enough, but this time, I was told I must either pass through the scanner or be subjected to a pat down. Why? Unless they were going to do a cavity search, there was nowhere else to look. I opted for the phone booth, and a young woman examined the image of my naked body and decided I wasn’t a serious threat.
In my mind, one of the more disturbing aspects of this, is that it doesn’t make us safer. It increases cost, time, and frustration, and doesn’t accomplish a damned thing. The concept of treating all passengers equally is the wrong approach. Profiling works, it has been used in Israel for many years, and no flight from Tel Aviv has ever been hijacked or blown up.
This success is due to a sophisticated system that combines intelligence reporting, profiling, and state-of-the-art technology for detecting weapons and explosives.
The screening process
includes a 25-second interview in which agents determine why a passenger has come to the airport, where he or she has been and is going, and the person’s general background. “Your aim is to locate, to find the one passenger that is a terrorist and is carrying explosive material under his possession. You have to characterize the passengers and to focus on those who are suspected and it’s less than one percent,” Schiff said.
Narrowing the number of people to scrutinize means agents can clear thousands of passengers more quickly than if every one has to undergo thorough body and luggage searches.
Israeli security agents say it would probably be impossible for someone like the suspected Christmas day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board an airplane at Ben Gurion without being stopped. It He was a 23-year-old Muslim male traveling alone, without checked luggage, and a ticket paid in cash.
This profiling is not necessarily racist (although it is in Israel) and in some cases it should be. The focus is on the passenger and the situation. In North America, if the person had a shaved head with swastikas tattooed on his forehead, it might be worthwhile to check him out. Given the fact that animal rights groups and anti-abortionists have been responsible for the most terrorist attacks in North America, it seems to me that these people and their travel actives should be monitored. Around the world, different groups have targeted their specific ‘enemies’. Muslims, Basque separatists, Irish extremists, Sikhs, and many other have all been known to commit terrorist acts. I can’t see the harm to the public in profiling members of these groups.
At about the same time, Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy commented that:
An understandable kneejerk reaction is to say that no price is too high to pay for saving lives. But a moment’s reflection suggests that isn’t true. For instance, let’s say that we could reduce terrorist attacks on airplanes to zero by subjecting every passenger to a strip and body cavity search, and having all baggage searched by hand. Most people would still conclude that the benefit isn’t worth the cost in resources, lost time, dignity, and privacy.
An important related point is that we should not impose severe burdens on air travelers whose main effect is simply to divert terrorists to other, “softer” targets. Even if costly and intrusive measures succeed in providing perfect security for airline passengers, they still would not be worth it if the terrorists simply switch to other targets that are comparably attractive from their point of view. In Europe and Israel, the terrorists have reacted to improvements in airport security by attacking trains, subways, university campuses, and other areas where large numbers of people gather in places that are harder to secure than airports and planes. That doesn’t mean that we should have no airport security at all. But it is a factor that weighs against adopting extremely costly and/or highly intrusive security measures. Even if such policies reduce the risk of terror attacks on planes, they still may not be worth their cost because they might fail to reduce the net loss of life caused by terrorism overall.
Similarly, if we impose too many hassles on airplane passengers, more people will travel by train or bus, both of which are much easier for terrorists to attack than aircraft are. Others might choose to make long trips by car. Cars rarely make good targets for terrorists. But traveling a given number of miles by car exposes you to a much higher risk of death or injury by ordinary accidents than traveling the same distance by plane. Again, the net impact might actually be to increase loss of life rather than reduce it.
US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said this week that
her department is considering beefing up security on trains, ships and mass transit amid a public backlash over the body scanners and “enhanced” pat-downs at airports across the country.
No one is suggesting we should ignore airport security or other threats, however, since we haven’t been focusing our efforts selectively, we are losing the freedoms we are supposed to be protecting.
Besides, there are too many examples of the current security failing, just ask Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame